Hard Days For Lame Ducklings : Legal Difficulties

Lincoln Caplan, a writer for the New Yorker, is author of "The Tenth Justice: The Solicitor General and the Rule of Law" (Knopf)

Edwin Meese III is an impresario of corruption: of the old-fashioned kind--misuse of influence and office; of ideas at the heart of constitutional law, and of the process by which laws are made, interpreted and enforced. Since he came to Washington in 1981 as Ronald Reagan's longtime friend and counselor, Meese has regularly eschewed high legal standards in conducting his personal business affairs and matters of state.

When backed into a corner, Meese has often explained misdeeds as the product of bumbling and disorganization rather than venality. He has presented himself as a victim of circumstances--as in the Wedtech scandal where his judgment and financial dealings have been called into question. He has claimed lapses of memory, as during the Iran-Contra hearings when he was asked about his actions and replied, "I don't recall," or something like it, 187 times. He has also eschewed truth. To cite a simple case, he claimed one of his incendiary statements that now rings with irony ("You don't have many suspects who are innocent of a crime") was misquoted though it came from the transcript of a tape-recorded interview.

Until last fall, the political resilience of the President, Meese's closeness to him and the backing of Reaganites helped the attorney general survive doubts about his judgment and integrity. Meese's role in the effort to get a Reagan Supreme Court nominee approved changed that. Displaying the partisan judgment from which he recovered in the past (as in 1982, when he backed the Administration's position favoring tax exemptions for segregated schools, and suffered an embarrassing Supreme Court defeat), Meese insisted on presenting the nomination of Robert H. Bork in the most divisive terms. Then he engineered the hasty selection of Douglas H. Ginsburg as a replacement. He twice opposed the appointment of Anthony M. Kennedy--advocated as the most sensible choice from the start by White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. These actions convinced influential conservatives that Meese had become a liability.

Meese's bad political judgment rises from the same mix of bullheadedness and carelessness that led to his taint of corruption. The latter has aggravated doubts about his ability to perform the duties of attorney general, among Justice Department officials as well as others.

The week before Christmas, Meese's longtime friend E. Robert Wallach and two associates were indicted for fraud, racketeering and conspiracy in the Wedtech scandal--where a small business allegedly used White House contacts to gain major government contracts. Not long before, the attorney general testified at one of two grand juries in Washington--as he has done during 11 sessions in recent months--to tell about his knowledge of and part in the Wedtech and Iran-Contra affairs.

A statement by Meese's attorney, citing the decision of the Wedtech independent counsel not to prosecute the attorney general, was balanced by one from the independent counsel, stressing that his was "an interim and not a final decision."

The Wedtech affair has already led to the guilty pleas of four executives, who admitted stealing $2 million from the firm and bribing federal, state and local officials; the conviction of two Maryland politicians for accepting $50,000 to stop a congressional investigation; the indictment of a New York congressman for racketeering; the indictment of former White House adviser Lyn Nofziger on four counts of breaking federal ethics laws, and the involvement of a dozen other prominent people.

The nub of the Wedtech story is that the firm took advantage of White House contacts and no-bid contracts for minority businesses to turn a tiny South Bronx machine shop into a defense contractor with $100-million annual revenues. Meese admits that, while counselor to the President in 1982, he intervened at Wallach's request to help Wedtech win a $32-million Army contract. (The head of the Small Business Administration wouldn't grant the contract, so he was fired.) But Meese says he only did for Wedtech what he did for others, to assure a fair hearing.

Meese acknowledges that three years later he (and his wife) invested about $50,000 in a partnership run by W. Franklyn Chinn, who soon became a Wedtech director and was later indicted with Wallach.

But Meese claimed that he turned his investments over to Chinn only because Wallach advised him to, to fulfill a commitment made to Congress that others would handle his financial affairs. His violation of federal ethics rules (reported by the General Accounting Office) by not disclosing the partnership details was an oversight, Meese insists, and he says he knew nothing about Chinn's illegal investment of far more than Meese had handed over to him. Meese concedes that, in two year's time, his profit was $45,857, or about 90%, but he claims the partnership's dealings had nothing to do with his aid to Wedtech.

Meese's role in the Wedtech scandal has not yet been judged by any official body, but his part in the Iran-Contra affair has. Congress, in its report, strongly censured Meese. After the story surfaced in November, 1986, and the cover-up carried out by Central Intelligence Agency Director William J. Casey, National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North and others collapsed, according to Meese, he set out to gather relevant facts. Assistant Atty. Gen. William Bradford Reynolds (taking part as a trusted crony, not because the Civil Rights Division he heads had any part in it) is said to have found a "smoking gun"--a memorandum that had escaped shredding, about the diversion to the Contras of funds from arms sales to Iran.

To the majority of the congressional committees, what happened next indicated that Meese was either incompetent or part of the cover-up. Until the memorandum was discovered, each interview Meese conducted involved two Justice Department officials, one taking careful notes; after the memo's discovery, the attorney general, unaccompanied, conducted a series of important interviews with key players, and he says he took no notes. In an affair where the Administration continually showed "disdain for the law," according to the committees' report, the attorney general displayed similar disdain by his failure to conduct the investigation properly.

Whether or not Meese is indicted or convicted for his part in Wedtech, Iran-Contra or other affairs now under investigation, his record is established. Almost everything Americans need to know about Meese's attitude toward the law was apparent in late 1985. In January of that year, the Reagan Administration forwarded his nomination to be attorney general. A 385-page report by an independent counsel about Meese's personal business affairs had indicated that Meese was regularly either oblivious of legal standards required of the nation's chief law officer or contemptuous of them. But the counsel had not recommended prosecution, so the Administration called the report a "vindication." The Republican-controlled Senate confirmed Meese, and he was off and running.

In July, 1985, Meese began a series of speeches advocating a major cutback in the Supreme Court's role that amounted to a central attack. He said the way to assure that justices and other judges didn't jeopardize the separation of powers was to have them "resurrect the original meaning of constitutional provisions and statutes as the only reliable guide for judgment," and reject the almost universal view that the Constitution must take meaning from each era.

By the time Meese's proposal drew stern rebuttals from two justices and a host of legal scholars--conservatives as well as liberals--the attorney general had changed his focus. In the fall of 1985, he moved to the Constitution's provisions on the structure of government. Meese contradicted the most basic understanding about the Supreme Court's role, established 200 years ago. Indicating to some experts that he didn't comprehend the meaning of the separation of powers--Justice Thurgood Marshall said so explicitly--Meese announced that the court's interpretations of the Constitution do "not establish a 'supreme Law of the Land.' " To Meese, the President has the authority to do almost anything he wants.

The attorney general has invoked this radical view of the Constitution to justify some of the Adminstration's most aggressive practices: its habit, especially in areas of civil rights and the environment, of not enforcing laws that the Administration doesn't favor and misreading statutes and court opinions to achieve desired results; its transformation of the post of the solicitor general from the legal conscience of the government into a partisan spokesman for presidential policies, and its campaign to fill the federal courts with judges who share Meese's legal vision. According to Sheldon Goldman, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, this Administration has advanced the most ideological approach to judicial selection in U.S. history.

Meese has been uncompromising in his pursuit of the Reagan agenda, a crusader who brooks no criticism, blames his troubles on the press and surrounds himself with lawyers just as single-minded as he is. His preference for loyalty over competence at the Justice Department has demoralized that institution. While most of his efforts to change the law have failed, they have also exhausted the supply of synonyms for extremism in law.

To Reagan, however, Meese is "no embarrassment." Reagan went out of his way at a recent press conference to put his arm around the attorney general and make this point. Meese is what the President wants him to be, a symbol of the Administration's outlook on the law and of the Administration itself. But as was clear from the public record two years ago, and is increasingly recognized by the public today, Meese has turned that role upside down, by standing for corruption.

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